Managing Publicity Disasters: 7 Useful Examples from Indian Startups

Whether you’re a big corporation or a tiny shop or a startup with the best intentions vis-a-vis customer focus and a great work culture in mind, you will run into something or the other that goes wrong. A less than happy customer, an employee who thinks you suck, and public perception that goes against you and judges you quickly without the entire story or facts known – it will all happen to you and is more a question of “when” than “if”.

How you respond to an incident like this is what determines where you are headed, what your DNA as a company is and how respected you and the brand will go on to be over time.

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There are some great examples to learn from internationally – Tylenol’s forthright and very open response to the cyanide laced pills its customers got hit with, Toyota’s brake fiasco that left a bad taste in the mouth about an otherwise very respected brand, and FedEx’s prompt damage control when one of its employees was caught on tape tossing packages carelessly. There’s also Facebook which has received flak for its feature rollouts time and again, but has quietly stuck to its guns and gone with data that confirmed the acceptance of the changes rather than with vocal opinion that rejected it. And of course, there’s Tony Hsieh of Zappos who can carry off the awesome comeback AND win accolades for it 🙂

Yet, there’s instances closer home, and from those companies we have seen grow, and sometimes, grow up through these experiences.

Flipkart’s Service – Sachin Makes It Personal

Sachin got onto Quora to respond to a very negative customer experience that went viral.

“It hurts … a lot.
And just to clarify, it is not the criticism which hurts, the criticism in the article is totally justified. It was our mistake and we should not have let that happen.
What hurts is that a customer is having a bad experience because of us. A promise to the customer was broken by us.

Also, to add, there are actions being taken on these issues even as I write this. We are committed to keeping our promise with our customers.”

Flipkart has undergone a radical change in its model, and has been growing furiously. Obviously, there are growth pains, and a few unhappy customers. We thought it was great that the CEO got involved directly, and took it on the chin. [Read : Founders : Take it Personally]

Redbus’ Exit and Employee Dissonance

Redbus had a major exit but some questions about whether many employees got a raw deal continue to persist, and beyond those directly affected, this has had an impact on the wider ecosystem. Of course, in any such deal, multiple stakeholders’ contractual obligations and priorities need to be accommodated, but some sort of an open response about the same would have helped understand this better, and built upon the founding team’s otherwise very positive reputation and personal equity.

Freshdesk Takes on ZendeskFreshdesk

Zendesk’s CEO didn’t take kindly to Freshdesk, and ranted strongly against it. The latter did not take it lying down, yet did not react through an angry tweet, but with a case that built up their case including a very detailed comparison as well as testimonials – and turned the reaction against it into a veritable marketing opportunity!

Take a look at the page they created in response. It not only makes the case decently, but also convinces a random passerby of the value of the product vis-a-vis the “original”.

Flipkart Should’ve Avoided this Homeshop18 Bait

There was this time when a Flipkart employee had an issue with something he was buying on HS18 in his individual capacity and tweeted something unpleasant. Homeshop18 responded with a protest for details rather than offensive language, but cc’d the guy’s employer. Unfortunately, Flipkart actually got dragged into this and admonished their employee!

We think that both companies should have kept it strictly between the buyer and the seller, and responded with more maturity.

Zomato’s Workplace Debate

Someone who claimed to have worked at Zomato left a long note about issues with the founders/work culture in response to a question about the same. While these issues are always contentious and subjective, the founder responded with reasons and the approach towards team and culture building that addressed the rants rather than go after the individual personally, and did not sound either offensive or defensive about it. It’s a great way to not just respond to the questions raised, but also advertise to the right folks who are likely to appreciate both the attributes shared and the effort shown towards making the same clear publicly.

Knowlarity Addresses Vulnerabilities

An ethical hacker reported on the forum a few vulnerabilities he discovered on their site. To their credit, Knowlarity acknowledged it, thanked the hacker and to limit risk and damage, politely requested that the details of the same be removed. This was done. This was a pretty mature response that openly accepted a problem and was followed up with a quick response towards fixing it. Most customers would actually derive confidence in the responsiveness of the company from this.

How To Really Make It Worse, Like Via DidBad Press Publicity

Everyone screws up once in a while, and so did for a customer who was trying to book their honeymoon trip to Australia. Not only did they not fix the issue immediately, there was an apparent attempt to “fix” the negative perception through seemingly fake positive ones. And then it even descended to threats! That’s certainly not an appropriate way to publicly deal with a customer who has an obvious problem for whatever reason. The best response would have been to explain what went wrong and why, apologize and if possible, make good the loss or at least try and find alternatives pleading helplessness.

There are many lessons to be learned from these – as we’re sure these companies would have learned too. For starters, as a business you cannot afford to have an ego, and it goes against the reason for your existence which is to solve something for customers! It also helps to be as open as you can, and if someone suffered directly or otherwise because of you, start with acknowledging the same and apologizing – the person at the other end is then a lot likelier to be receptive to your explanations and offers to set things right to whatever extent you can. Bluster, hiding information or trying to deflect responsibility almost never work. Even if you’re completely in the right and need to make that clear, it’s important to do it very politely, with empathy and without getting negative in a personal way against the customer.

Despite your best intent and actions, perceptions are important. And how you interact with folks when things go off the expected track determines how you’re perceived.

Take care.

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